Triumph of Suu Kyi is complete

But the real change in Myanmar will take time to come


One-fourth of seats in parliament are reserved for unelected military officials. So, in the years to come, the influence of the army may diminish somewhat but it is unlikely to vanish

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi enjoys such popularity and hold over the suppressed masses of Myanmar that it was obvious all along that if byelections were held in an authentic, free and fair manner, she would win those hands down. So, when her National League for Democracy (NLD) captured 43 of the 45 seats of the upper and lower houses of Parliament that it contested in the April 1 election, it came as no surprise. What is full of suspense is the course that the country will now take. Suu Kyi herself won from Kawhmu with an overwhelming majority. Her party won 37 seats in the 440-seat lower house, four in the upper house (senate) and two in the regional chambers.

While her return to active politics after being put in and out of jails by the military is a good augury, it will not exactly change the course of history in one of the poorest countries of the world with a population of about 60 million. Myanmar’s legislature has 664 seats. More than 80 per cent of these are still in the hands of lawmakers aligned with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The veteran dissident leader has ruled out entering the government, but it is quite possible that she may take up an advisory role, especially on the issue of ethnic minority conflicts – an everyday occurrence in many parts of the country since it gained independence in 1948.

It will be a surprise if the USDP provides much manoeuvre room to the doughty 66-year-old fighter. In fact, there are reasons to suspect that she has been allowed to return to active politics by the junta only to get the West off its back. She evoked worldwide sympathy when she was incarcerated, but now that she is out in the rough and tumble of public life, the fickle global attention may shift to more “pressing” issues and the junta may get away with just cosmetic improvements in Myanmar. In last one year, the once-reclusive country has welcomed her party into the political mainstream, besides freeing several political prisoners. But that is about all. 

The military rulers are helped by the fact that the western interest in its affairs is fashioned by economic compulsions rather than by the noble intentions of restoring functional democracy. Already, the west has shown itself to be over-eager to mend fences with Naypyidaw (the new capital of Myanmar), that offers tanatalising commercial opportunities, which everyone wants to make the most of.

That is why British Prime Minister James Cameron rushed to Myanmar last Friday, becoming only the first western head of government to do so. He wanted to be among the first in the field dominated greatly by China. There are enough straws in the wind that soon there will be a mad rush to assist Myanmar in reconstruction. That this will offer them rich dividends is “incidental”. It is not without reason that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in December 2011.

Washington announced last week that it would ease some restrictions, but said measures would remain in force against those opposed to reform. The European Union is quite likely to “substantially” ease sanctions on April 23 – the day Suu Kyi enters parliament as a lawmaker.

The political implications of the loosened grip of the Tatmadaw (as the armed forces are known) would be known only when full-fledged elections are held three years from now. How far Suu Kyi is allowed to go then would be the litmus test. She had led her party to a landslide victory in 1990, the last time multiparty elections were held in Myanmar. Despite her claiming 392 out of a total 489 seats (80 per cent), the junta refused to cede power and she was made to cool her heels under house arrest. She was released only in November, 2010. She has spent 15 of the past 22 years locked up by the junta. One hopes that 2015 would not be a repeat of 1990. Already, some of her colleagues are grumbling that she has yielded too much in return for merely being allowed to function out in the open. In the bargain, the ruling party has got much more: a fig-leaf of legitimacy.

It has miles to go on the human rights front. The government did release 318 political prisoners at the end of last year, but there are still an estimated one thousand who are behind bars. Prison conditions are barbaric. Ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Kachens go on. These issues will go on the backburner if the world declares “business as usual” too quickly.

The half-century of military rule that began in a 1962 coup has impoverished the country. Hawkish leaders such as Senior General Than Shwe and his number two, Maung Aye, are now ostensibly out of the reckoning but they have placed enough handpicked hardliners in the government to ensure that even if President Thein Sein (a former General himself) wants to, he cannot dole out too many concessions to civilians. They will do everything in their power to ensure that the power remains the preserve of the military. One-fourth of seats in parliament are reserved for unelected military officials. So, in the years to come, the influence of the army may diminish somewhat but it is unlikely to vanish.

Thein Sein has gone far enough – having freed political prisoners, partially lifting the gag on the Press and allowing the Opposition to run for elections. But there are limits to how far he may be allowed to go. Some hardline military leaders already call him the Mikhail Gorbachev of Myanmar.

One country which may have the worse of exchanges due to the current goings-on is China. Its footprint has been too large during the army regime and its close ties with the Generals have made it rather unpopular. As government controls loosen, the public may come out more and more vociferously in opposition to it. India could have slipped into the likely vacuum, but its conduct has been less than exemplary in support of the forces battling the military stronghold. Yet, there is a large reservoir of pro-India feelings which it can build on.

The importance of Myanmar for India cannot be overstressed. Its very location is such that improved relations with it will help India take better care of north-eastern states. The huge oil, gas and mineral reserves that it has can find a ready buyer in India. Then there is also the question of tackling subversives who have traditionally been taking shelter in Myanmar. That is why it is necessary for Delhi’s Look East policy to keep its main focus on the immediate East.

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Copyright © 2013 Amar Chandel